Irish study warns of dark side of fitness apps

People can become obsessive
  • Deborah Condon

A new Irish study has shed light on the dark side of fitness apps, warning that some people can become obsessive about exercise as a result of using them.

Researchers at NUI Galway set out to assess how fitness apps can affect the wellbeing of the user.

Apps, such as Strava, Runkeeper and Nike+, have become hugely popular in recent years. The self-tracking and gamification available on these apps allows people to track and alalyse their fitness data, such as calories burned, number of steps walked and average speed of a run.  

In the US alone, 92 million people use such apps and the app market was worth over $600 million last year.

The NUI Galway researchers specifically focused on how the social features of these apps predict whether a person has a harmonious or obsessive passion for exercise, and how this impacts on their wellbeing. Their study included 272 people involved in intense cardio activity.

They found that fitness apps can lead to positive wellbeing outcomes, however this depends on the person's social motivation for using the app. Those who use apps for reciprocation, i.e. giving support and encouragement to other people who are exercising, were more likely to have a harmonious passion for exercise, and ultimately, lower levels of life stress.

However, the study found that people who use these apps for social recognition, i.e. to receive praise and/or public endorsements for their activities, were more likely to develop an obsessive passion for exercise. They were also more likely to suffer higher levels of life stress in the long run.

"The majority of exercisers are now using digital technology to track and share their workout data in order to support their fitness goals, but these fitness apps can be a double-edged sword. Our study suggests fitness sharing apps can certainly help seed and sustain exercise routines, but there is a danger that some users may develop obsessive tendencies, which need to be avoided," explained the lead author of the study, Dr Eoin Whelan, a senior lecturer in NUI Galway.

He pointed out that fitness app social features which promote self-recognition, such as posting only positive workout data or photos, can be linked to "maladaptive perceptions of exercise and burnout in the long run".

"In contrast, fitness app social features which promote reciprocation, such as giving support and commenting on colleagues' activities, are likely to lead to adaptive outcomes," he noted.

The study also points out the potential risks of giving employees free fitness apps and incorporating these apps as part of employee wellness programmes.

"Our results shed light on the dark side of fitness app engagement in that they may indirectly lead to greater burnout. If the organisation supports fitness app use among employees, they should also be responsible for ensuring the employee maintains control over their exercise patterns.

"One possible solution could be for the organisation to monitor the exercise log files of employees and assess these for signals of exercise obsession," Dr Whelan said.

Details of the study are published in the journal, Information Technology & People.


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